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Pam Grier is comfortable with being an icon

Pam Grier, action hero icon
Pam Grier, action hero icon 08:01

In the 1970s, the height of the blaxploitation film era, Pam Grier was the undisputed queen of the genre, and one of the few female lead action stars ever. To the movie-going public, she really was a one-woman hit squad – a gun-toting goddess who made her name in films like "Coffy," "Sheba, Baby," and the immortal "Foxy Brown," where she fought against low-life drug dealers, and the idea that a woman couldn't outfight a man.

"Not a lot of other women sought to emulate me, because it's harsh, firing a gun – arms frighten people. Standing up to authority, standing up to injustice is daunting," Grier said. "And I didn't know any better, I guess!"

Pam Grier takes out some really bad guys in "Foxy Brown":

Foxy Brown - I Want You to Suffer! Scene (11/11) | Movieclips by Movieclips on YouTube

But she always seemed to win, and in a long career she graduated to roles that didn't involve breaking heads, like one opposite Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in "Larry Crowne."

And now, Grier plays the mother of an L.A. homicide cop in the second season of the hit horror series "Them," now streaming on Amazon Prime. Asked why she said yes to this series, Grier replied, "Insanity! Because I'm not good with bump-in-the-night. You know, I'm not good – I lock the doors, turn on the lights. Don't sneak up behind me!"

But there have been times when her real life was scarier than anything in a movie house.

Pamela Suzette Grier was born 75 years ago today, May 26. An Air Force brat, she was raised near bases from North Carolina to the U.K. Her family eventually settled in Colorado, where young Pam learned some of the things that would help her later on. "I had this rawness, you know, from the 'hood, that I didn't have to learn how to ride a horse, I didn't have to learn how to spank a behind. I didn't have to learn how to throw a skillet. You know, these things came with my craft."

Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

And to perfect that craft, she went to L.A. in the '60s where she was discovered, and subsequently cast in a series of tough prison girl movies, like "Women in Cages" and "The Big Bird Cage."

As her fame grew, her love life got attention, too. She never married, but Grier was romantically linked to a number of high-profile men, among them comic legend Richard Pryor, with whom she starred in the movie "Greased Lightning."  

Asked if she thought she could have married Pryor, Grier replied, "For a day. I've left relationships not falling out of love, but not being loved. And there's a difference. Maybe my husband, partner, mate was filmmaking."

By the mid-'80s she was a fixture in Hollywood on screens big ("Fort Apache the Bronx," "Something Wicked This Way Comes") and small ("Miami Vice," "Crime Story"). And then, her life hit a pretty big bump.

In 1988 Grier was given a Stage-4 cancer diagnosis, and was told she had 18 months to live. "My world literally came to a screeching halt that day in the office," she said. "And that's how we evolve. They couldn't say cancer. They said the C-word. 'We have the C-word.' And I was like, 'Uh, you can say cancer. And I'm gonna give it my all.'"

And her all was enough. She recovered, and started to put her career back on track.

Actress Pam Grier. CBS News

Turns out Pam Grier had fans in high places, something she found out by accident while watching the 1992 Quentin Tarantino film "Reservoir Dogs." "In the car they bring up this woman who is this crimefighter named Foxy Brown! And I was sittin' there, and everyone, they turn around and point to me!"

Not long after that, she met Tarantino in person, who told her he was writing a screenplay with her in mind. "I didn't believe it," she said, " 'cause he's the number one premier filmmaker, pop filmmaker in the world. I mean the world. And he said, 'No, seriously, I'm gonna send it to you.'"

And it was bigger than she ever imagined: Grier was the title character in Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," opposite Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Michael Keaton. Not surprisingly, the experience turned her into a big Tarantino fan. "Man, I hope he doesn't retire," she said. "I'll babysit his children so he can go to work. I don't want him to retire. There's so much more to him. And he may not wanna give it. But I've been just fortunate to experience his lessons, his joy he has shared with me."

And the joy continues: in a storefront attached to his Vista Theater in Los Angeles, Tarantino built a coffee shop named for one of Grier's most famous characters, Coffy. Inside the place is basically a shrine, with Grier's face on everything from posters to coffee cups.

Asked if it was a little overwhelming, Grier replied, "Yes, it is a lot overwhelming!"

Pam Grier pays a visit to Pam's Coffy.  CBS News

Pam Grier seems comfortable with being an icon, as long as it means she can keep doing what she loves. Asked how long she thinks she will keep making films, she replied, "'Til I'm about 100. You take small steps. You still move forward. And my steps might get really small when I get older, I don't know. But I never wanna lose my curiosity and respect for what we have."

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Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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